Word choice -- simple or sophisticated? It depends!Word Choice – Simple vs Sophisticated? It Depends!

Base your word choice – simple vs sophisticated – on the intended readers’ preference, not yours. As with all aspects of communication (e.g., the message, its sequencing, and length), tailor the vocabulary to the audience, as well.

Simple vs Sophisticated. Prevailing advice on this long-debated topic favors simple over sophisticated, an ill-advised, overly simplified precept.

I advocate just the opposite – an elegant vocabulary is often appropriate and could well elicit this reaction, “You’re speaking my language!” Used correctly, it can help connect with rather than alienate your reader.

This article presumes you are communicating with educated professionals. In that context, I present four points and counterpoints:

[Note: These points are as I discovered them on the Internet and constitute great Before examples against which to hone your Word Sculpting skills!]

1. Point: “There is no need of using sophisticated vocabulary in communication; it has been confirmed that effective communication subsist on: clarity, concise, complete, correct, considerate, courtesy, concrete.”

Counterpoint: Let me first address the quality of the preceding sentence. Remember, poor writing undermines the author’s credibility.

  • First, the author’s use of the passive voice … “it has been confirmed” … obscures key facts such as by whom, in what venue, and its factual basis.
  • Second, “communication” does not “subsist on” anything. It might “consist of” or “comprise” and those words should precede a string of nouns, not adjectives.
  • Third, this list is inconsistent, mixing a noun among the adjectives.

That aside, I agree with the “7 Cs”— However, the issue is how to achieve them. Contrary to Point #4, an advanced vocabulary is apropos!

  • Clear and concise. Sophisticated words are often richer in meaning and, therefore, more economical than simpler alternatives, which can require more words to convey the same thought (Word Sculpting Tool #2, Shorter is Better: Don’t Hog Space).
  • Considerate. Meant here … “Know your audience and write to its needs.” My litmus test is simple. Does your audience read The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal or similar publications? These often cite terms such as sedulous, concretize, trenchant, pithy, celerity, incipient, and incent.*  You can, too!

2. Point: “Simple words help you express your message clearly. Too many complex words are like hurdles in a race, barriers to understanding which slows readers down. Replacing complex words with simpler words whenever possible lets your readers concentrate on your ideas and information.”

Counterpoint: This point is insufficiently nuanced, suggesting an all-or-nothing approach; rarely the correct tact. An author should strive for balance. Infuse elegant words periodically, but not excessively, throughout a document.

Knowing your clientele – and the vocabulary to which it is accustomed – is requisite. These individuals will also likely appreciate the intellectual challenge of a new word!

On a humorous aside, I introduce you to sesquipedalian (an ironically lengthy word, itself), defined as given to using long words.

3. Point: “The connection between a word and its referent is slippery and complex. Be careful of words you’re not very familiar with – it’s a bad idea to grab a thesaurus and adopt a near-synonym just because it sounds a bit fancier or less predictable. That way lie potential confusion and absurdity.”

Counterpoint: Advocating for use of rudimentary terms discourages intellectual growth. Simple language “dummies down” the skills of readers and writers, alike. Note – I conveyed the preceding thought in “simple” terms. More elegantly stated … simple language desiccates writing of intellectual richness.

Expanding one’s lexicon does require effort to ensure a new word fits the intended context. That, however, does not justify avoidance! Stretch yourself and champion intellectual curiosity.

4. Point: “A person who uses sophisticated vocabulary should be able to express the same meanings in non-technical, common, everyday language.”

Counterpoint: This equates “sophisticated” with “technical,” which I consider distinct topics. Yes, an author must sometimes express technical concepts in terms that resonate with others, such policy makers or those who allocate funds. That, however, is different from the use of sophisticated terms.

In researching this article, I found a heartening comment by Robert Walker, “The more frequently ‘sophisticated’ words are incorporated in everyday practice, the less ‘sophisticated’ they become. Perhaps that is a good thing in raising everyone’s linguistic abilities.”

Hooray, Robert!

[*Note: the verb incentivize derives from the noun incentive which, itself, derives from the verb, incent. Thus, if striving to compose elegantly, use incent, not incentivize]

Backstory to this article: I recently composed a document in collaboration with several writers and characterize the experience in a single word … logomachya dispute about or concerning words. The issue — word choice: simple vs sophisticated. One party advocated composing the document at the 8th grade reading level. I recoiled at that proposal. The many ensuing discussions inspired this article